SITKA, Alaska — The small town of Sitka, Alaska, maybe hundreds of miles away from U.S. Army Alaska headquarters on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, but their ties remain strong with the annual Alaska Day Festival.
The festival, held Oct. 15 through 19 this year, culminated with events on Oct. 18 to recognize the anniversary of Alaska Day, the formal transfer of the Russian territory of Alaska to the United States on Oct. 18, 1867, in Sitka. According to the Alaska Day Festival Committee, more than 250 Soldiers of the 9th Infantry Regiment stood in formation as the U.S. Army assumed control of the territory at that 1867 ceremony, hence the tradition of Army participation in the Alaska Day Festival reaches back to the festival’s inception in 1954.
It’s a tradition that today’s USARAK Soldiers, like Spc. Jared Lehmann, said they feel honored to continue.
“I enjoy reading history, and I spent some time in Russia before I joined the Army,” said Lehmann, of 725th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), “so I like the connection between Sitka, Russia and America, and how it all comes together. I like that it’s done in the same spot that it happened 150 years ago.”
Led by the participation of USARAK Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak Jr., Lehmann and a small group of 725th BSB Soldiers performed rifle salutes and as a Color Guard during several ceremonies, including a memorial service at the Sitka National Cemetery and the transfer ceremony re-enactment on Castle Hill.
“The people here are really nice,” said Pvt. Branden Kenney. “When we were walking past the elementary school, the little kids were waving at us, and it was awesome to be out here doing our thing.”
Along with members of the 9th Army Band, they also participated in the Alaska Day Festival Ball and marched through town in the annual parade.
With a population of fewer than 10,000, Sitka is an island community proud of its history and the relationship forged with U.S. armed forces, said Steve Dalquist, Alaska Day Festival Committee vice-chairman. It’s also home to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, whose members also participated in the festival events and ceremonies, as did members of the Alaska Army National Guard.
“Whether you are a citizen of Sitka, whether you’re involved in this kind of activity or not, I think the sense of kinship to the Army, feeling a kinship to the Coast Guard or feeling a kinship to the people of the (Alaska) National Guard … it’s a whole-town experience,” explained Dalquist, dressed in a replica 1800s-era Army uniform.
Veterans who call Sitka home add to the welcome rolled out each year to visiting USARAK Soldiers. Those like Alaska Day Festival Committee Chairman, Ted Allio, a former Army first sergeant, find their way to be involved with the annual event, which he said is a significant part of the city’s history.
“It’s good for the citizens down here to see the military,” he said. “We have the Coast Guard, and they do a lot here. It’s important to the community.”
The Army’s historic presence at the original event continues to reverberate with local citizens and visiting Soldiers alike.
“It was a neat experience,” said Sgt. Zachary O. Smith, who was particularly impressed with the commitment of local citizens wearing 1800s-era clothing and military regalia. “They were dressed quite elegantly at the ball as well.”
Even the seasonably wet weather didn’t dampen the spirit of the festival and what it meant to be a part of it. Kenney said, “Even while it’s cold and rainy here (now), there’s a small-town vibe about it. It makes me feel happy to be a part of this, and it means the next generation will need to be stepping up, too.”